Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lost Rome.

The Pantheon with the Bernini bell towers demolished in 1883.

The Eternal City is not as unchanging as many might believe. Since its annexation to the newly and forcedly created Kingdom of Italy in 1870, Rome has been been subjected to a number of vandalic changes made by selfish rulers who wanted to make a visual impact on the aesthetics of the city - first the northern Savoia monarchs and then Mussolini, the dictator. In both cases a Napoleonic complex of little historical figures suddenly finding themselves in one of history's greatest cities, led to the annihilation of areas of Rome of great significance, areas that were well alive and full of the atmosphere that slowly is leaving this city, the Romanitas; a sense of history, tradition, culture, melancholy that can still be found in certain areas, such as Trastevere or the Jewish Ghetto.

Palazzo Altoviti on the Tiber.

Nowadays, Romans feel a great sense of nostalgia for this lost aspect of the city, a world we have not had the occasion to know, but where our grandfathers and grandmothers lived and enjoyed themselves, often they still have vivid memories of such splendid places. For us Romans this image of Rome gives us a sense of profound melancholy as well as familiarity. Many of the changes that took place between 1870 and 1942 are mostly criticised by archeologists and art historians today. We are not talking about Baroque alterations here, here we are talking about a modern endeavour of destruction that could easily be avoided. Areas of Rome that were once rich of beautiful palazzos and churches are now empty and perennially look as if someone is temporarily working on something that will never be. So many are the scars in a beautiful city that could have even more treasures surviving to our day. The aim of this article is to start a journey into what we lost.

The Savoia destruction

The Tiber embankments 

Up to the 1870s, every autumn, the Tiber regularly flooded most of the city, therefore a new commission to solve the problem was created. Many ideas were found in order to prevent a future flooding, the best (and cheaper) solution was that of a system of dams and exhaustion affluents in Umbria, where the Tiber could let the waters in other rivers when it got too big, the project was Dutch, by Cornelius Meyer, so we can probably rest assured it would have worked! Of course the Savoias went for the destructive but monumental option: that of building high walls along the river in the centre of town, these walls that can still be seen today. 

The Tiber before.

The problem is that they are highly unattractive, but also, they put an end to the relationship of Rome with its river, a historical relationship, now the river is a far entity one occasionally looks at. Once, it was home of splendid banks, with ancient mills, rowing clubs for Roman princes, marvellous loggias covered with flowers and massive palazzos with porticos ending above the waters, even two beautiful harbours; those of Ripa Grande and Ripetta, the second created a splendid Baroque illusion with the Spanish steps in the background, being of the same architectural style and giving a sense of continuity - this is all lost. Rome's palazzos and churches were literally built all along the river, as in Venice and with the end of this relationship, with the advent of industrialisation, came also the pollution. Perhaps if the river had remained closer, we would have made sure to keep it healthy?

 The Ripetta Harbor.

Piazza Barberini and Via del Tritone

This piazza was mostly remodelled according to the Savoia taste, a grand, large, empty square surrounded by eclectic buildings that reflected perhaps the taste of Turin but surely not the atmosphere of Rome. Many of the original buildings were lost and the Via del Tritone was created, one of the soulless Savoia arteries of Rome. It involved the demolition of several palazzos, including the Renaissance Casino del Bufalo, and a Baroque church.

Piazza Barberini before.

The area where now is the Via del Tritone with the demolished church.

Piazza Venezia

Piazza Venezia before the mutilations.

Perhaps the most destructive among all the various urban "mutilations", occurred between the 19th and the 20th centuries, is certainly that of the area that now corresponds to the Piazza Venezia - the need for a piazza and a huge monument dedicated to the newly unified Italy and especially to the ego of a single king, triggered the destruction of a a historically remarkable neighbourhood. The monument to Vittorio Emanuele has many faults; the wedding cake or the typewriter, loved by tourists and hated by (art) historians, is made of an alien stone for Rome, that of Piemonte, the same area from which the then Prime Minister came from! It is truly depressing to discover what was lost in order to make way for this giant monster; here Michelangelo and Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano had their palazzos, it was where the beautiful Palazzo Torlonia was located and indeed, alsowhere  the beautiful Palazzo Venezia stood in all its glory, without the later demolitions, this palazzo had previously been papal residence and a narrow elevated passage, similar to the Vasari’s one for the Medici in Florence, led to a tower, the Torre di Paolo III, that led to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, on the Capitoline hill and to its cloisters, these fascinating addictions were all destroyed. There were picturesque narrow streets in the area, often with Baroque skyways between the palazzos (in this case, that of the pope). Perhaps, the most charming characteristic was the small piazza between the Palazzo Venezia and the Palazzo Torlonia that had a certain Medieval feel to it, like a Tuscan town so to speak. Of course, all monasteries, churches and religious houses were confiscated by the Italian state when it was unified, so they had a right to do this.

The Medieval/Renaissance look of the Capitoline hill before the demolitions, with the tower of Paul III and the convent of the Aracoeli on top.

This is what the area where the Piazza Venezia is looked like before the demolitions.

The piazza below Santa Maria in Aracoeli with the church of Santa Rita, which was moved near the theatre of Marcellus after the demolitions, it is now deconsecrated.

 The Aracoeli stairs and its cloister.

The house of Giulio Romano.

The ghetto

The Portico d'Ottavia in the Ghetto before.

The Jewish Ghetto of Rome is one of the most characteristic areas of Rome, it was once much larger and it now corresponds only partly to the original one. Some Medieval houses, made of ancient Roman bricks, stones, columns, sculptures still exist, the most charming of them still exists behind the Portico d’Ottavia. There was one beautiful piazza that was demolished, known as the Piazza Giudea, there was also the Piazza Scòle, with a fountain commissioned by Pope Paul V with both the Borghese coat of arms and a Menorah. The Portico d’Ottavia hosted a little market and the façade of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria, a small church dedicated to Saint Michael. The rest of the quarter was a combination of picturesque streets and alleys with Medieval houses, Gothic windows and Renaissance gates, the most famous were: Via della Fiumara, Via Rua and Via delle Azzimelle. At its peak the Ghetto Ebraico reached the Tiber banks, the excuse for the demolition of such an historical area was that of colera, apparently the area was too close to the river and there was an outbreak of colera recently in Naples… but there was never one in Rome, so this is just one of the many pointless ideas that mutilated Rome. In front of the portico there is a Medieval house that still gives us an idea of what the area would have looked like. Indeed, the Jews of Rome were treated horribly ever since Neapolitan Pope Carafa instituted the Ghetto in the late 16th century, the quarter was in terrible sanitary conditions, but was destruction the solution?

The Ghetto before the demolitions in the 19th century. 

This is my favorite building in the ghetto, it still exists and the wooden door along the stairs still exists, so touching.

Mussolini, “Il Picco Risanatore”

Piazza Montanara and Piazza dei Cerchi

 Piazza Montanara with the Teatro di Marcello

Between the Ghetto, the Capitol and almost to the church of San Nicola in Carcere, there was one beautiful, large square: Piazza Montanara. The piazza was located around the Theatre of Marcellus, readapted by Baldassarre Peruzzi into Palazzo Orsini during the Renaissance, and it was famous for its market; peasants came every morning to bring delicious food from the country, in an analogue way to that of the Campo de’ Fiori. Imagine if some day the mayor would order the Piazza Navona or the Campo de' Fiori to be demolished? Mussolini did try that too, thankfully he did not succeed.

San Nicola in Carcere in its Piazza, before the demolitions, now the church stands alone.

One has to imagine that this piazza was located in a larger neighbourhood that reached the Circo Massimo and most of the Forum on the other side. There were plenty of Medieval houses in this case between the Piazza Montanara and the Piazza dei Cerchi which was located in front of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Places such as the so-called house of Cola di Rienzo or the Renaissance Church of Sant’Omobono and even the Renaissance monastery of Tor de’ Specchi had their own historical context, now they just stand alone in a once bustling with life, but now dead part of Rome.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Piazza de' Cerchi.

Piazza de' Cerchi and the Foro Boario with Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the background.

This area was completely destroyed during the 1920/1930s in order to make room for the Via del Mare, by destroying Medieval palazzos and churches such as Sant’Orsola and Sant’Andrea in Vincis. With those demolitions we lost a rare testimony of Medieval Rome. Now, what was once a lively neighbourhood is a dead access to the city, deprived of its own context, its piazzas and its life.

The area between Piazza Montanara and Santa Maria in Cosmedin before the demolitions. The two Roman temples (Foro Boario) were surrounded by Medieval buildings, they were demolished by the Savoia.

The Largo Argentina and Corso Vittorio Emanuele

What is now known as Largo Argentina, due to its Medieval tower, the Torre Argentina, is one other area of Rome that was greatly damaged in order to unearth Roman ruins. This picturesque quarter that linked the Ghetto, Campo de’ Fiori and the area around Sant’Eustachio with its characteristic Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque palazzos, also hosted a lovely church; San Nicola de Cesarini, which was destroyed in order to facilitate the archeological explorations. The mutilation of the Piazza begun under the Savoia, when they started the construction of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, proceeding with their mutilations from the Largo Argentina to the Tiber in front of the Castel Sant’Angelo via the Chiesa Nuova and the Palazzo della Cancelleria, where also more Medieval and Renaissance palazzos were destroyed. Mussolini started the archeological excavations in the Piazza instead, destroying the whole area. Nowadays, the Crypta Balbi is the perfect example of how to make archeological excavations without destroying the buildings above.

San Nicola dei Cesarini and the lovely buildings in the area now occupied by Largo Argentina.

This is what the area where now Corso Vittorio is, would have looked like before.

Piazza Sant’Andrea della Valle and the Corso del Rinascimento

The Piazza Sant’Andrea is only the result of clumsy mutilations that occurred along the Piazza Navona which survived only very luckily - as Mussolini was planning to destroy that too (and he almost succeeded). This piazza is a tragic scar in the heart of the centre: on one side is the beautiful façade of Sant’Andrea della Valle, on the other is a horrid Fascist building, the piazza makes way to the Corso del Rinascimento, a large street that runs along the Piazza Navona. In order to create it, a large abitato was destroyed - here there were more examples of Medieval, Renaissance and even Baroque houses, as those attached to the complex of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza and surrounding the nearby Palazzo Altemps north of the Piazza Navona. The biggest loss in this case was that of the Piazza Madama in front of the Palazzo Madama as well as that of the nave of the beautiful Renaissance church of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli.

Piazza Madama, 1930, now Corso Rinascimento.

La Sapienza University and the facade of San Giacomo degli Spagnoli.

The Forum

Houses near the Coliseum on the border of town, when the Forum was a lively neighbourhood.

The area that led from the rearranged Piazza Venezia to what was then the Forum was filled with narrow streets in a very Medieval fashion, there were also memorable buildings, such as the house of architect Pietro da Cortona, the Piazza Macel dei Corvi, the Palazzo and Palazzetto Venezia with its  Baroque skyways and a certain number of old houses that signed the borders of Rome, the countryside: 

Piazza Macel de' Corvi, in what was the neighbourhood above the Forum.

The area which is now occupied by the Forum was a lively neighbourhood, linked to the Monti quarter on one side and to the Piazza Venezia on the other - this group of palazzos had a great view on the Campo Vaccino which corresponded to the present Forum, between the Colosseum and the Capitoline Hill. This quarter pretty much merged with that of the Piazza Montanara and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, on the other side of the Forum, and also with the Medieval buildings surrounding the Market of Trajan, on the other side, this whole abitato reached, though Monti the area near San Clemente. It was quite impressive.

An aerial view.

In the 1930s, led by megalomanic desires dictator Benito Mussolini had the whole Medieval neighbourhood destroyed, including notable buildings such as the monastery of Santa Caterina in Magnanapoli, in order to make room for his vision of a new Roman empire. It was not about archeology, the main part of the Forum had already been unearthed. Everyone living in the destroyed buildings was deported to social housing in the outskirts of Rome. Following the demolitions, this area of Rome is also demographically dead now. At the time one could have a nice walk from Santa Maria in Cosmedin, to the Ghetto, to what corresponds to Piazza Venezia now, to the abitato which occupied the Forum, going all the way to San Clemente. It is known that there were plenty of restaurants and shops in these areas, now there is nothing, but a memory of what it used to be.

This is what a stroll in this area would have been like, this is what has been lost.

Piazza Augusto Imperatore

Another rather unattractive area of Rome is certainly that near the Ara Pacis, Via del Corso and Via di Ripetta; the large piazza filled with massive Fascist buildings. Here there was a lovely Baroque / Rococo neighbourhood, reminiscent of the area of the Via del Babuino, among the warm coloured buildings stood the Mausoleum of Augustus, in a better shape than it is now, as it has been vastly damaged by the plantation of cypresses in it, another idea of Mussolini. The main urban mutilation was that of the Via Ripetta, that continued all the way to the church of San Rocco which was located on the Porto di Ripetta itself, previously destroyed by the Savoia kings.

The area before the demolitions.

Spina di Borgo

The spina as seen from the dome of St. Peter's.

The Piazza as seen by the spina.

The last but not least destructive of the Fascist mutilations of Rome is that which created the Via della Conciliazione: the vast avenue that leads pilgrims from the Castel Sant’Angelo to St. Peter's Basilica. Before then, stood a Renaissance quarter called Spina di Borgo, because it had the shape of a spine. There were important Renaissance and Baroque buildings in it, it would certainly give a context today to the still surviving, yet lonely, palazzos such as the Torlonias' and the Della Roveres'. A sad loss is certainly that of the Piazza Scossacavalli with the Church of San Giacomo a Scossacavalli, the supposed altar of the temple of Solomon and the stone where Jesus stood when he was presented to the high priest, were located in the church, according to legend, they were brought here by Saint Helena herself. The fountain by Carlo Maderno that was located in the Piazza is now in the Piazza Sant’Andrea della Valle. This quarter gave a great sense of continuity with what now remains of the Borgo. The spina also aided to that Baroque sense of theatre, that Bernini used when he designed St. Peter's Square: one would have found himself in narrow streets, only to end up in the huge piazza, where a sense of awe would have caught even the least sentimental person. That was the idea behind it all. As in all the precedent cases, this was a lovely, lively area which is now demographically dead.

The spina as seen from above.

Piazza Scossacavalli, with the Carlo Maderno fountain now in the Piazza Sant'Andrea della Valle.

San Giacomo a Scossacavalli, the Baroque church with the relics brought by Saint Helena in its piazza during a flooding.

The entrance of the spina.

What happened to those Romans who lived in these houses? The Fascists deported them to newly built slums in the outskirts of the city, with no hospitals, markets or schools. Not many remember this. All I can say is, let us be thankful for what we have, let us be thankful for the visual testimony of what once was, this Eternal City despite having been sacked, hurt and scarred, to this very day, has so much to offer and will never cease to amaze. Thank you Rome!


  1. That is an amazing post, with so much scholarship behind it. Well done!

  2. I enjoyed every word of this post, and the vintage pictures of the areas discussed. Very informative to someone researching Rome and getting acquainted with it on-line. Many thanks!

  3. This was really well done - I spent a semester studying the architecture of Rome and general urban planning of it. A lot of this information is hard to come across and I think you did especially a good job using all of it!